... now with 35% more arrogance!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tiny Kingdoms

I've said that the Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, the setting that gives this blog its name, is meant to be sword & sorcery with a medieval feel, and also that it would focus on broad strokes that could be used to improvise within the setting, instead of lists of medievalesque minutiae. I want to talk a little more about that.

Despite the medieval window-dressing, the implied setting of D&D is very modern. For one, D&D worlds feel too big. Many setting products contain a world map; even Hârn, which attempts to be truer to the medieval, has several continents and details on many large kingdoms. The history is "big", too, in the sense that medieval fantasy worlds often have detailed chronologies for thousands of years of politics and war.

In contrast, the world felt really small and young to the average medieval person. Contact with distant lands and cultures was indirect. Peasants travelled up to a day away maybe once a week, a week's journey once a year, a full month's pilgrimage once or twice a lifetime, if lucky. Merchants travelled farther more regularly, but their world is still small. Information and goods get passed from one hand to another in a long chain, with the information becoming more vague and fanciful the further it travelled. Individuals who travelled farther were so rare that their journeys were notable historic events, like the Crusades, the Viking expeditions to Vinland, and the journey of Marco Polo.

Most medieval Europeans lived in small, densely-populated areas separated by wilderness. I decided the best way to encourage this feel would be to have a large area of many small kingdoms, a dense forest a couple thousand miles across with many rivers, and with cities and settlements clustered along the rivers. Cities are small, maybe two to ten thousand people, and most kingdoms only have one, a few have two, and a very few have three. Roads connect villages, towns and cities within a kingdom, but not between kingdoms; overland travel is rare to nonexistent. Travel between kingdoms is by river; as a consequence, kingdoms very far upstream or downstream from where adventurers live are exotic, barely-known cultures.

I made the name "Nine and Thirty Kingdoms" from a similar expression in some Russian fairy tales. I've lost the exact reference, but I seem to remember seeing it in a tale about Koschei the Deathless. I picked the name because it suggests a very large number of small kingdoms, and because it sounds like a traditional expression: there may be far more than 39 kingdoms, but because no one knows and everyone has always said "the nine and thirty kingdoms", that's what they're called. Most people could only name five to ten, with scholars approaching the full number, but arguing about the exact names, or whether principalities and independent arch-duchies count as kingdoms.

All of this background could be described in about ten pages or less, so this is not really what the commercial or non-commercial product I may eventually produce will be about. It's basically a sandbox for wilderness adventures with a set of rules for randomly creating and improvising kingdoms and cultures. I've actually been working on kingdom generation recently, which is based around little coded labels like "H1Y" and "V5SH". It's not fully worked out yet, although I'll mention that V5SH is a three-city kingdom and H1Y is a one-city kingdom. I know what the codes mean, but haven't worked out the best way to generate them or everything that could be gleaned from the codes. It's a question of how far I can go without sinking into that dreaded minutiae. The point of the codes is to have a simple way to identify kingdoms that could be described in sketchy detail -- a couple short phrases at most -- and give DMs guideline to improvise an enormous land of endless adventure from those scanty details.


  1. I like what you're doing here: you're embracing something I usually don't.

    Its exactly this small world complex that pushes me toward an Islamic or Chinese inspiration for my games: in the former case there's the pilgrimage to Mecca, which springs at least one person out of every village and across the known world, through cities and deserts and whatnot, so that they get some idea of what's beyond the horizon. In the latter case there's a massive bureaucracy that links distant valleys together: a young aspiring magistrate or warrior for hire can find themselves posted to some remote corner where the locals aren't sure if he's human or demon.

    Seems like you're saying people would have some idea of what was out there, even if they were hopelessly naive outside their own village. I never quite know what to do with fantasy worlds that seem like everyone just arrived a week ago, where the players can explore the next hex and find out there's a ruined city or some other large feature there that nobody knows about.

  2. Well, they'd have some idea of other kingdoms, with decreasing knowledge the farther away it is. But I like the idea of a foreboding, vast wilderness that's mostly unknown, with most travel being in a narrow strip of the known world, such as a vast river system. The kingdoms slowly expand away from the river valleys, but beyond their frontiers, it's Terra Incognita.

    And yes, there may be lost cities out there in the woods.